Katie's Reviews > The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade

The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler
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Oct 24, 2011

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bookshelves: women, history, human-behavior, book-club
Read in October, 2011

Since I'm not a mom, my opinion of this book can't be wholly trusted, but nonetheless, here it is:

Fessler compiled personal accounts from women who got pregnant out of wedlock in the 50s and 60s and had their children taken from them under the guise of "voluntary adoption." Every single one of these accounts was unjust and upsetting: Girls were ostracized by their own families, they were made to feel unworthy of motherhood, they weren't informed of their legal rights and - in many cases - were blatantly lied to, and of course, worst of all, they had their children taken from them against their will. Then, given that this was a time of repressed emotions, the women were expected to simply forget about it and move on.

The cultural reaction was abominable enough, but legally, it's hard to believe that this even happened in America. What an incredible thing, to live in a time when you, on a personal level, could be lied to, misled and forced into doing something you didn't want to (and technically didn't have to) do by your state. It's difficult to fathom.

Hopefully this establishes that I find not informing citizens of their rights, particularly so you can then go and steal their babies, reprehensible. That said (you knew it was coming!), would keeping the baby have been the best decision for any of these women? In the typical case, the parents refused to offer any kind of financial or moral support, the boyfriend was MIA, the girl had no savings and hadn't yet graduated high school and therefore had slim, if any, job prospects...would they really have been able to take their babies home and raise them the way they deserved to be raised?

One girl made the point that several years after her first pregnancy, she had her second child. She still didn't have any money, she still didn't have a degree, she still didn't have a career, but this time, she was married, so all was well and she was "capable" therefore of being a mother. This of course just emphasizes the inanity of the culture's prejudice: Having a ring on your finger doesn't automatically mean you're in a good situation to have a child. Many single women are much better equipped to raise a life than married couples, unquestionably. However, my mind is in 2011 when I say that, though - not 1962. In 1962, an unwed mother didn't stand much of a chance without the support of her family and society's acceptance - neither of which she would have received.

Another girl - a 14-year-old - had talked it over with her boyfriend, and they were determined to get married. They had been saving up their dollars and had even bought a TV - clearly, one of the first things you need when having a baby and saving up to live independently. Who says this girl wasn't equipped to parent on her own!?

Yet another girl says she would have been able to do it with "just a little help." Since when is it anyone else's job to help you raise your child?? If you can't do it on your own and don't have anywhere to turn for support, can you really do it?

I'm not remotely suggesting that we create a financial or intellectual litmus test for motherhood and if the woman doesn't pass, she loses her child. That's ridiculous. But ultimately, the vast majority of these women - girls, really - couldn't have provided for their babies the way the adopted parents (in most cases) could - and the way the babies deserved. That doesn't excuse the near kidnappings that took place, but while the mothers may have suffered greatly, were the children better off?

I'm also a little confused about what the subtitle has to do with the book, other than to market to pro-choicers. Is Fessler suggesting that abortion would have been a better solution than adoption? Had abortion been available at the time, I'm sure many of these women would have at least seriously considered it and some would have gone through with it, but as the majority are now happily reunited with their children, I have a hard time believing that any would choose to go back in time and abort the kid away.

This book raises a lot of really interesting questions. Four stars for the thought-provoking content. Minus one for being too one-sided and a little repetitive. Net net, this "hidden history" is a worthwhile read, but readers should take care to consider the not-hidden history of adoption's benefits, as well.
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06/13/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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Carrie Carlson Great review, Katie. Totally agree on the repetitive nature of the text and the one sided viewpoint. It would have been 100 times more compelling to have heard the other sides to the story.


Heather I think that the author's point is that adoption might be harder for pregnant women who can't keep the child than abortion may be. (This would vary from woman to woman.) I am grateful to live in a time and country when women have that choice. And I am grateful that this book was written by a compassionate author who didn't feel the need to bring right-wing propaganda into it.


message 3: by Katie (last edited Feb 15, 2012 07:05AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Katie Thanks Heather. I imagine either situation would be pretty terrible to have to go through, but I'm not convinced an abortion - particularly given the collective cultural stance on abortion at the time - would have caused any less suffering. If you recall, most (all?) of the women wanted to keep their babies, so having that possibility taken from them - whether through abortion or adoption - would have been pretty equally devastating.

I feel compelled to point out that not everything speaking out against abortion is "right-wing propaganda," just as everything defending it isn't "left-wing brain poison."


message 4: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette Great review. You've raised my intense feeling about the one sided viewpoint.


message 5: by Lynn (new)

Lynn Katie, since you read the book, your opinion is as important as anyone else's, your own motherhood status at the time not withstanding. You wrote a very intelligent review and it needs no caveats.


Linda I don't think her intent was to "market to Pro-choicers" nor is she suggesting that abortion would have been a better solution than adoption. She is simply illustrating an era when unwed and pregnant women and girls had no choice in the outcome. And the repetition? Yes, every story seemed the same but I think that's the point. Not one woman was able to ever forget the child she gave birth to and never saw again. We adopted our son in 1999 and it's vastly different. Just because a pregnant woman opts for having her child adopted, it does not mean that she doesn't care about who the adopting parents are and she does have a choice. The deciding choice with a photo album created by the prospective adopting parents. She is given 3 couples and is allowed answers about the couples to a degree (not where they live). But she will get a choice and never have to wonder who her child's parents are.


Katie This was a long time ago now that I read this, so I'm basing this off of memory here, but I do remember thinking that the subtitle made it seem as though were abortion an option at the time, alllllll of these girls' problems could have been solved just like that, whereas I (a constrained pro-choicer) just don't see abortion that way. That's probably an unfair assessment though - I'm sure (I hope?) she actually was more nuanced in any discussion of Roe v. Wade.

How times have changed, though. I'm currently 34 weeks pregnant with our second son, and upon rereading my review, the one thing I can say I for sure feel different about is where I said "Yet another girl says she would have been able to do it with 'just a little help.' Since when is it anyone else's job to help you raise your child?? If you can't do it on your own and don't have anywhere to turn for support, can you really do it?" In the most literal, libertarian view ever, this makes sense, but the real world doesn't work like that. Obviously raising my child is MY responsibility and mine alone (well, and my husband's), but good lord I couldn't do it without the support of my friends (especially my mom friends) and family. Kids can't be successfully raised in a vacuum. I moved out of state recently and just got a card from a friend that said something to the effect of "Friend, you've saved me a lot of money...[inside] that otherwise would have gone to therapy." A joke, of course - we love our kids more than anything, ever - but the whole "it takes a village" adage is 100% real.


message 8: by Janet (new) - added it

Janet Roe v Wade is ultimately about choice. These girls were not given one.


message 9: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette And now, right now, with the strong cultural bias the opposite way (pro-abortion)- I see college age women from my university being strongly coerced into abortion when they have extremely conflicted core about it themselves. And others who are family influenced to keep a baby that they would rather adopt out in their hearts. One I know did adopt out after a couple of months against strong influence not to do so. It is not as "cut and dried" that legal abortion equals "choice" to me, at all.

I was there in 1962 and saw one girl in particular, go away. It was a strong coercion too- as in the book.

And Katie, I have to disagree with that "onus" of parenthood to a fairly strong extent that you relay. Some of us have raised children "on our own" and from a young age. And with no monetary or family support. AND without governmental welfare in the picture at all.

It is not easy. And it is not a task for a teen-ager, that's for sure. But I did it. And did it well. Believe me, I had no village to help me either. Nor unpaid friend therapist. But we were like the "three musketeers" together for about a decade (father ill and out of the picture) and those 2 babies are top notch 40 plus year olds today.

There is a middle ground and we are NOT on it presently. More babies should be adopted out than are in this 2016. There are waiting lists presently, even across racial, ethnic, national lines.

Psychiatrists' offices are filled with "choice" takers, in my experience within that field. Especially many years later, at menopause or right after. Just because you are given a choice other women ancestors never had, doesn't always equate to triumph. At all.


message 10: by Janet (new) - added it

Janet But we are allowing choice better than in 1962. Not perfect, but better. Women were coerced into abortion back then, too. Just not safe ones.


message 11: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette I've been in both eras and seen what I've seen. I am certainly not convinced it's better now.


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